It’s not enough to fight for equality within the current system, and Kate Ellis is proof of that

Clementine Ford
Like many women, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment when I heard the announcement on Friday that Kate Ellis was resigning from politics.

It wasn’t just sadness over the loss of an exceptional MP (and possible future Labor leader), although I felt that keenly. It was the reminder that no matter how hard women try, no matter how much we have to offer and no matter how essential we are to the fabric of public life, those structures still obstinately refuse to accommodate our needs.

Fairfax journalist Jacqueline Maley described this trend perfectly when she wrote, “It was a straight-up case of what I would call the Enormous Pull of the Tiny Face. It was also confirmation of one of politics’ saddest trends – those politicians who have their priorities straight, often leave politics, because they have their priorities straight.”

Ellis was more straightforward even than this, saying, “I haven’t wanted to leave him. I like being with him.”

Circumstances like Ellis’ are often used to justify the reasons women are kept out of equal representation in leadership roles or management positions. The excuse of “well, she’ll just have a baby and leave” has been heard countless times, delivered with a shrug and a what-can-you-do-about-it smile.

The failure of the world to achieve equal representation for women is treated like our own fault; if we just tried harder, loved (our families) less, focused more and kept our eye on the prize, we could achieve the kind of success our male counterparts seem to land upon so frequently. Can employers really be blamed for the cursed biological clock? It’s not like the women are being forced out, after all!

Well, sure. It’s easy to frame things this way when the privilege of a good work/life balance is weighted in your favour. Generally speaking, men’s careers will remain on track after the birth of children while women’s are more likely to suffer stagnation, or even termination, because the pressures of returning to the workforce after a time away can be too great.

This isn’t just my opinion. A 2016 study of 17,000 workers aged 42 found men with children earn a staggering 21 per cent “wage bonus” with their earning capacity increasing with each child. The same study found women with children were subjected to a “wage penalty”, earning 11 per cent less than their child-free colleagues.

Similar research looking at CV comparison has shown men with children are more likely to be offered interviews than men without children, even when their qualifications are identical. Conversely, women with children are seen as less reliable than those without children, and women in general fare worse against men with identical qualifications.

In a research paper addressing the wage gap, Michelle J. Budig, a professor at the University of Massachusettes-Amherst, concludes: “Fatherhood is a valued characteristic of employers, signalling perhaps greater work commitment, stability and deservingness.” Budig also notes discrimination against working mothers increases the lower her overall income goes. Simply put, “the women who least can afford it, pay the largest proportionate penalty for motherhood.”

Fatherhood adds value, prestige and opportunities to men’s working lives where motherhood just marks female employees as potential problems. Men do not have to figure out how to care for a baby while representing their constituents, nor are they criticised for spending long periods of time away from their kids while working. No one suggests men who work full time while a woman cares for their children shouldn’t have bothered having them in the first place.

When the video of a professor being interrupted by his young children on live TV went viral this week, it was accompanied by laughter. And it was funny – but the humour dulls somewhat when you realise that a mother shoving her kids out of the way while she worked would have doubtlessly been treated very differently by the world’s armchair commentators.

Men work first and parent second, and this is accepted as OK. Women, on the other hand, are caught in constant battle between the two states and none of their choices are ever seen as the right ones.

As a politician of at least a decade, Kate Ellis won’t exactly be left on the poverty line when she leaves this job. She’ll receive a lifetime pension now for her service, not to mention the opening up of opportunities because of it. All that, and she gets to be at home, taking her son to school in the mornings and putting him to bed at night. 

But do you know where she isn’t able to be now? In our government, influencing policy and representing the people of Adelaide. And the reason she can’t be there is because those structures of power are still overwhelmingly unfavourable to women broadly and mothers in particular, because they have been designed with no input from either group.

This is what patriarchy looks like. It isn’t just the stalking bogeyman that people hostile to feminism like to suggest, but rather a system of civil, structural and political governance that has been designed with men as the default vision of leadership, and with the expectation that all others will happily defer.

This is also why it isn’t enough to strive for equality within the system as it currently exists, because the system itself is flawed. Why should women – especially those charged with the bulk of the work of raising society’s next generations – be excluded from governance just because there has thus far been no drive to recognise how vital their inclusion is and adapt the system to accommodate it?

Why is it acceptable to anyone, let alone those who claim to represent a broad range of constituents, that such a tiny, homogeneous group of people are supported to make decisions about how we run our country just because it’s easier for men to check out of parenting?

It is not acceptable that one of our most promising leaders has been forced to opt out of her work because that work makes it impossible for her to be with her child at night. It is reflective of the imbalance in parental expectations that these choices are rarely made by men, even though many of them almost certainly feel the same way. The system is inherently flawed and it must be dismantled and reassembled with input from everybody, not just those empowered by culture, history and social expectations to assume leadership.

How do we do that? I don’t have all of the answers. But I will keep asking the questions. There is a better way. We just have to challenge ourselves to find it.

 

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